Seeing Star Wars was one of the seminal moments of my childhood. My mom saw it when it came out in 1977 and immediately decided to see it again - with me, her 5 year old son. She was a little worried that I'd be scared of some of the creatures, particularly the riffraff in the Mos Eisley cantina. Needless to say, that wasn't an issue, and I spent the rest of that day acting out the movie with light sabers made with crayons and cardboard. 

I'm now 43, and gave three little boys of my own. I thought it was time the older two, ages 6 and 4, see Star Wars. I've been telling them stories about the movies for years, but I've been a little cautious about when to watch it. I had the same concerns about it being to scary.

Secretly, I was also a little worried about how they'd react to it. For kids growing up with fantastically rendered Pixar movies, would 1977 special effects seem lame? Would they respond to the story? I tried to set my expectations low. If they didn't like it I couldn't let it detract from me childhood memories.

So, how did it go? 

See for yourself: 

 

I'd say it was a success. 

Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell
appleIIe

I spend a fair amount of time thinking about how to introduce my three young boys to programming. As much as personal computers have evolved over the last 30 years, I feel learning to code has gotten more complicated.

Computers weren't very accessible until about 1976, when Steve Wozniak developed the Apple. My grade school, like just about every other school in the country, got an Apple II that sat at the back of the classroom. Considering that computers had always been room-sized objects that only existed in movies, it seemed like the future had arrived.

It seems kind of crazy now, but there were actually very few things we could do with the computer at that time. We had a couple games, such as Oregon Trail.  We quickly discovered that the Apple II came with a BASIC compiler, so we started to learn how to use it. During breaks between classes, three or four of us would huddle around the computer and type in programs from magazines like Enter (I wrote about my love of Enter a while back). 

So what is different nowadays? Why should learning to code be more complicated in 2014 than it was in 1980? I can think of at least a couple reasons.

Kids are harder to impress. When I was a kid, just hitting letters on a keyboard and seeing them show up on a screen was pretty thrilling. Until then, the only thing I'd every seen in a screen was whatever the TV station decided to show me. Even cooler, typing

10 PRINT "Todd" 

20 GOTO 10

would print my name an infinite number of times. What could be cooler than that?

Today, my kids play with computers all the time. I hate to admit it, but I frequently take a powerful one out of my pocket to keep them entertained when I need a little peace and quiet. They have pretty high standards: an app the prints 

Drew

Drew

Drew

Drew

isn't going to impress them.

Coding is a lot more complicated. Computers can do so much more than they ever could before. However, this adds countless layers of complexity and, as a result, creates a much larger barrier to entry.

When I wrote little programs on an Apple IIe, I just fired up the computer, fired up BASIC, and started typing. Today, it's a little more abstract. For most, the easiest place to start would be to write some javascript and HTML in a text editor and run it in a web browser. However, this still requires multiple steps along which multiple things could go wrong. After this option, things get a lot more complicated: proprietary software, frameworks, fancy IDEs, etc. might be required just to get started, which would likely be out of reach of any kids that don't have a programming- savvy adult to help them out.

I do think things are improving, however. Apple's new Swift programming language includes Playgrounds, which allows newbies to write small amounts of code and immediately see the results.

"Playgrounds make writing Swift code incredibly simple and fun. Type a line of code and the result appears immediately."

Definitely a much easier way to start experimenting with programming concepts.

Maybe it's because I now have small kids and it's on my radar, but it seems like there's a lot more awareness of the need to teach kids to code. The Hour of Code seems to be a great program that has introduced a lot of kids (and the President) to coding.

There are now a number of iPad apps that teach programming (Tynker, Hopscotch, Scratch). For the little kids, this doesn't mean coding - 6 year olds aren't going to write lines of Objective-C. However, they teach the systematic approach to programming: breaking your problem down into tiny little problems and solving each one in an elegant way. In my opinion, this is the most important part of writing code. Once you've got this down it doesn't really matter what language you're learning

And here's something else that just showed up in my RSS feed today: BitsBox, from a couple employees of Google's Sketch:

"Each month a surprise comes in the mail, filled with dozens of programs to type in. Like the computer magazines of the 1980s, we invite kids into learning with irresistible projects."

It's a Kickstarter project, but it sounds like a great way to get kids excited about programming. Kids love getting packages in the mail, after all!

As a dad, and a geek, I'm really excited that there seems to be a renewed emphasis on teaching kids to code

 

Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell

I just finished Walter Isaacson's book, The Innovators. You might remember Mr. Isaacson as the the man Steve Jobs approached and ultimately convinced to write his biography, but he also wrote a couple excellent memoirs about Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein

The goal of The Innovators  is to walk us through the major advances in computer science that brought us to the technology that we enjoy and love today. 

In my opinion, the most fascinating part of this evolution begins in the 1840's, when Ada Lovelace essentially mapped out the steps that are used to write a program computer program over 100 years before engineers could actually build a machine capable of running a program.

The book then moves on to discuss vacuum tube computers such as Eniac, the development of the transistor, the development of the microchip, the invention and popularization of the mouse and GUIs, Bill Gate's software commoditizing hardware, and the explosion of the Internet. And, of course, the collaboration of countless innovators that fueled this revolution.

I've read a number of books (Steve Jobs, iWozNerds 2.0.1, Eniac, Weaving the Web: The Original Design and Ultimate Destiny of the World Wide Web) that discussed many of these individual topics, but The Innovators is a great summary of the age of computing from it's humble beginnings to the present day.

 

 

Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell
CategoriesTech
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I'd been getting frustrated because I haven't been getting much done lately. I keep a constant list if things I want to get done on the website, apps, blog posts, and other ambitious projects. I've made virtually no headway on this list in the last six weeks and it was starting to drive me a little crazy.

Because it's light out so late into the evening my kids have been getting to bed really late, I haven't been getting much done at night. This is also the first summer with my oldest having off of school and I don't get much done if I'm home during the day.
Today I had a nice breakfast with my wife and son, then we went home and played a board game. It made me realize something: I'm just going to have to be less productive in the summer. There's much more important things for me to be doing.
Thank you, Drew, for helping me realize something that should have been obvious.

Transient
Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell
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I just released a new app to the App store, and is now available to download. It's a Park's Three Step app, similar to the one I have on the EyeDock website

It's been a long time since I made a new iPhone app. I wrote the original EyeDock and CLCalcs on a very early version of iOS (it was iPhone OS at the time). Back then, iPhones only had 3.5" screens and iPads didn't exist.

I've opened up XCode and modified those apps a few times since their inception, but mostly just to fix things. It usually worked like this:

  1. new version of iOS comes out
  2. Crap, my app doesn't work!
  3. Hurriedly,  with a thin sheen of sweat on my brow, try to fix app before I got too many complaints

My apps were pretty much like an old watch: I fixed them when they broke, but I broke out in a cold swear whenever I opened them up and looked at the insides.

I decided a few months ago I really need to make some changes to the EyeDock app. I don't like the way it downloads its data, it's not optimized for the 4" iPhone screens, and I really need an iPad version. 

I'd stayed tuned to the developments in iOS and knew that things were evolving rapidly. In light of Apples has added or changed their APIs, in conjunction with the major changes I wanted to make to my old apps, I thought it might be best to relearn the ropes. What better way to do this than to make a new app from scratch.

In conclusion, I bring you the Parks Three Step app. It's my first universal app (it works on both the iPhone and iPad). I too advantage of many of the new things that have come along with the last 3-4 versions of iOS, including parallax, blocks, autolayout, and ARC.  These things may not mean a lot to my non-iOS-developer readers, but this essentially means I'm caught up on the modern way of doing things.

Now time to rebuild that watch.

 

Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell

This quote from Matt Gemmell hit home for me:

It feels cruddy to share your work. it feels like you’re asking for a pat on the back, like the person who posts a selfie remarking on how ugly they are. it feels adolescent and needy, coupled with being exhibitionist and opening you up to ego-shattering pushback. It gets very slightly easier over time, but (in my experience), never really easy per se.
— Matt Gemmell

I hate marketing. For one, I'd much rather spend my time making something. For two, I always feel like a braggart when I people's attention to something I've done. For three, promoting your creations always opens yourself up for criticism, some of which is hard to swallow.

Still, it's a necessary evil. I'm envious of people who can build things and keep it to themselves  For me the process of creation is very rewarding in itself, but I have to admit the good job!s and "way to go!'s are what keep me going. Furthermore, if you hope to make (or supplement) a living on your work you need to tell someone about it.

Matt's advice?

Here’s the only piece of advice I can give: you just have to push past it. Ultimately, you have to write for yourself, not anyone else. What I mean is that you have to feel good about the work itself. Can I stand behind this? Am I glad to put my name to this? If you can answer “yes” to those questions, all the other things at least have a chance of following afterwards naturally.
— Matt Gemmell


Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell

I just finished the novel The Martian, and I enjoyed it. The title may be a little off-putting to people who aren't fans of science fiction, so you'll have to accept my reassurance that this book is science-y and fiction-y, but is for the most part very grounded in reality.  That is, of course, if you can suspend any disbelief regarding mankind's ability to put together a manned mission to Mars.

The title character, Mark Watney, isn't a little green guy, he's an astronaut that suffers an accident during a Martian storm. His crew mates believe he is dead and are forced to evacuate the red planet while they can. However, Mark survives his injury and wakes up all alone. To make matters worse his communications equipment is also destroyed in the storm and no one even knows he's alive.

The good news (for him and us) is that Mark is a resourceful guy. He was the mission's botanist and, like all astronauts, well versed in engineering and chemistry. The book describes in great detail the science behind Mark's method's of tackling the problems that arise. The first problem? Find a way to grow enough food to keep him alive until the next Mars mission visits ~2 years later.

In the end, this book is a bit of a cross between Apollo 13 and The Castaway. If you enjoyed watching the engineers in Apollo 13 pull out their slide rules to solve problems you'll like this book. The author obviously gave a lot of thought to how things would work on Mars, what problems would arise, and how they could be solved. Some may be critical of the detailed technical descriptions of what Mark Watney is doing, I liked it, and the book is definitely a page turner.


Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell
Tagsbooks

Like everyone else, my family has acquired more and more mobile devices. We each have an iPhone 5, we have a iPad 1, a Kindle, and I have a Samsung Galaxy phone through work.  Unfortunately we need at least 3 different types of cables (lightning, 30-pin, USB) to connect these gadgets. When we try to charge them our countertops look like the snake pit scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark. 

I kept trying to buy different devices to resolve this problem. Power strips. Outlet covers with USB jacks built in. The list goes on. However, these things did nothing to solve my problem: I still had a lot of long cables going everywhere. 

Then it hit me that the mess was due to having a lot of LONG cables. If the cables were short things would be a lot tidier. After some brief Amazon searches I found the perfect hub for me, the Anker 25W 5-Port USB Desktop Charger

It has a nice 5 foot cord, so I can have one single cord that allows me to place the hub out of the way against a wall. It has specific ports for iPhones and iPads as well as Android devices. Most importantly, this means that the iPad port has the higher (2.1) amperage for faster charging (if you've ever tried to charge an iPad with an iPhone plug you'll notice that it charges very slowly).

To complete my quest for cable orderliness I bought some short USB lightningmicro-USB cables, and 30-pin (old iPad) cables from Amazon and Monoprice.. Below is the result.

Posted
AuthorTodd Zarwell
Tagstech